Though just a small town, McCall has as passionate and intense a Nordic skiing culture as anywhere in the country. It is this intensity that has helped land numerous national level ski events in this neighborhood, including the upcoming Masters World Championships. Events of this caliber are not entrusted to any old ski club or burg.
It’s not a long distance from Boise, as the crow flies. However, driving to McCall requires taking Highway 55 along the North Fork of the Payette River, a twisty, two-lane road that can slow you down, so take that into consideration when planning travel time.
Ponderosa State Park
Anchoring the McCall area’s cross country ski offerings is Ponderosa State Park. One may not often think of a state park as a prime Nordic skiing destination. Government bureaucracies being what they are, trail development, grooming, special events and amenities don’t always dovetail well with the requirements by which many government agencies are forced to operate. It was a refreshing surprise, then, to see this impressive operation on state land.
Ponderosa State Park occupies most of a 1,000-acre peninsula that extends into Payette Lake, which in places is over 400 feet deep and abounds with a plentiful population of lake trout or Mackinaw, as they are locally known. In addition to the groomed ski trails, the lake itself can provide some outstanding spring skiing including a 7 km up-and-back crust cruise, conditions that have been known to last several weeks.
The mostly wooded 25-plus kilometers of trails wind through towering 150-foot Ponderosa pines (hence the park’s name) as well as many other western conifers such as Douglas and grand fir, western larch and lodge pole pine. Some trails use park roads, which, except for one, don’t really feel like roads. Given the park’s narrow peninsula profile and steep eastside topography, most trails run north-south and loop back to the Visitor Center/Ranger’s office, which serves as a warming area where basic snacks and hot drinks are available.
A good mix of easy and intermediate trails, plus a smattering of most difficult options, combine for an ideal family and enthusiast’s ski center. Most trails, like the Fox Run, offer long gradual ascent with a corresponding descent that is thoroughly manageable by most skiers. The grade and the turn radius are quite comfortable, permitting a fun ride in the tracks. The Lakeside, a newer trail in the trees along lake, is more rolling and skis nicely. At the north end of the park, Thread the Needle tests your endurance with a couple of grunting walls and a good climb to the high point with a well-deserved reward at the end -- an incredible view of the lake and distant ridges.
At around 5,000 feet, elevation is not the same issue it can be at many western Nordic ski destinations. The trails at Ponderosa have seen frequent upgrades and are regularly groomed with a PB200 or snowmobile, depending on conditions. And it doesn’t hurt that Rich Taplin, assistant manager of the park is an avid skiing and trail enthusiast. He’s also a member of the Masters World Cup organizing committee.
Near the Visitor Center is a wide, open area that is used as a stadium for competitions. There’s also an experimental dog loop across the road. As previously mentioned, the McCall area has hosted several major competitions over the years, including Junior Olympics and U.S. Nationals. The area is quite excited to be the host site for the 2008 World Masters in March. The park is also host to the Payette Lakes Ski Marathon, a 30 or 15 km freestyle race.
In addition to skiing, several snowshoe trails snake among the ski trails. Skiers can also camp in yurts or small cabins along the trails. With abundant snow, supportive management and well-groomed trails, it’s little wonder that Ponderosa State Park attracts upwards of 40,000 skier visits annually.
You might time a visit to Ponderosa to coincide with McCall’s Winter Carnival. Described as more of a Mardi Gras on snow, the Winter Carnival showcases an elaborate array of snow sculpture and other festivities. The easy-to-navigate downtown has a good assortment of restaurants, coffee shops and an obligatory brew pub.
The Bear Basin trails, just a few miles outside of McCall, offer some of the best Nordic skiing terrain around. Operated by Payette Lakes Ski Club (see this month’s Ski Club Feature), the Bear Basin trails alternate wooded with meadow settings and regular open expanses with stunning views. This area even has its own micro climate and, as such, often sees more snowfall than the surrounding area.
With several really fun and relatively challenging loops, Bear Basin’s more difficult trails are characterized by long sweeping descents, some with tight turns, followed by a good climb back up. The trails use a stacked loop structure, where the closest loops are the easiest, progressing to the outer-most loops that are the most difficult. On the far end of the network, Lyle’s Loop drops into a pleasant tree-lined meadow where it meanders about for a kilometer or so before beginning the climb back out. Mack’s Loop climbs to earn some great vistas on the backside of the system where you can spy the Polar Express trail in the distance as it works its way back up from near the bottom of the ride.
Though at 18 km it is not an extensive trail system, the trails at Bear Basin are a must-do during a visit to the McCall area, and a complimentary contrast to Ponderosa State Park.
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For more information
Ponderosa State Park
Bear Basin/Payette Lakes Ski Club
McCall, ID 83638
2099 West Mountain Road/P.O. Box 840
Tamarack, ID 83615